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Posts Tagged ‘Breaking Bad’

Just a few days ago Breaking Bad in its final season won its second Emmy for best drama. The AMC show averaged over nine Emmy nominations per year in its five-year run. And who knows how many ‘water cooler moments’? Here’s one from the season four episode Problem Dog written and directed by Peter Gould.

“One thing I like about our series [Breaking Bad], one thing we strive for is to create ‘water cooler moments.’ That’s certainly not an expression we created, but the way we define a water cooler moment is: Is it a plot development or is it a scene in which people can gather around the water cooler at the office and discuss what the scene meant? Not simply get them talking about it, but have them discuss it and argue over what the scene meant, what it forebodes, perhaps, for the future. And all of this to say that I personally have no particular political or social axe to grind, because I think that stories that set out to do that become kind of didactic or polemic. Stories about characters are always more interesting to me, personally. There is no deeper social indictment at work here, at least not consciously. However, when I speak of water cooler moments, I like for the audience to have the ability to perhaps argue that there are [social or political prerogatives]. I like for people watching our show to have different viewpoints on what exactly the show means. And Walt’s behavior—I like folks being able to argue over his behavior. Is he completely wrong, or is there some rightness to his cause?”
Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan
2010 Slant interview by J.C. Frenan

P.S. The last part of that reminds me of the quote by the playwright Ibsen who said it was enough to ask questions. The wrestling with those questions is what people think about after watching a movie, play or Tv show. And if you’re fortunate to strike a nerve it leads to people standing around the water cooler talking it. I don’t know if they had water coolers back Shakespeare day, but I’m pretty sure they had some kind of version of water cooler moments even back in ancient Greece.

Scott W. Smith

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“I am not in danger, Skyler—I am the danger.”
Walt (Bryan Cranston) in Breaking Bad

“In the early days, especially writing the [Breaking Bad] pilot, I worried so much that Walt wouldn’t be likeable. It’s funny, I bent over backwards to give the audience reasons to sympathize with him. I was nervous – anxiety-ridden, as I typically am – that what I was saying in that script was interesting enough for the audience. Watching that first episode, I probably overdid that a bit. In hindsight, I’ve learned the audience will go along with a character like Walt so long as he remains interesting and active, and is capable about his business. People like competency. What is it people like about Darth Vader?  Is it that he’s so evil, or that he’s so good at his job? I think it might be the latter. All the fears I had – ‘Boy, no one’s gonna sympathize with this guy’– turned out to be unfounded, which was a very interesting revelation.”
Two-time Emmy winning producer/writer and Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan
Rolling Stone article by Rob Tannenbaum

Related bonus quote: “Television is really good at protecting the franchise. It’s good at keeping the Korean War going for 11 seasons, like M*A*S*H. It’s good at keeping Marshal Dillon policing his little town for 20 years. By their very nature TV shows are open-ended. So I thought, wouldn’t it be interesting to have a show that takes the protagonist and transforms him into the antagonist?”
Vince Gilligan on creating Breaking Bad
The Dark Art of Breaking Bad by David Segal
2011 New York Times 

Related posts:
Simple Stories/Complex Characters (Tip #95)
David O. Russell on Characters & Theme “I always look for amazing characters who I find are fascinating, charming, flawed, romantic and in trouble.”
Protagonist= Struggle
Movie Flaws, Personality & DNA “Scorsese is often called ‘America’s greatest director’ on the strength of a body of work in which all the characters in his movies are various degrees of wicked and miserable people.”—William Froug
Martin Luther King & Screenwriting (Tip #7) “Strong characters hold our interest in life and on the screen.” —Andrew Horton, Writing the Character-Centered Screenplay

Scott W. Smith

 

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“Boris was a great artist. He did a beautiful job under difficult conditions. The weather was cold and overcast. We rushed to shoot the film in 35 days. Cheap is fast. Every day costs money. Spiegel, the producer, was on Kazan’s tail to go faster. We were pleased by the way the film turned out. Everybody was against it. We overcame all the obstacles.”
Screenwriter Budd Schulberg on Director of Photography Boris Kaufman who won an Oscar for shooting On the Waterfront which Schulberg won an Oscar for writing
on the waterfront

In the past year and a half I’ve been giving away boxes of my screenwriting and productions books to high schools and colleges. Last week I went through my bookshelves again and came up with two more boxes of books to give away and this batch includes William Froug’s Screenwriting Tricks of the Trade which was first published in 1992.

I flipped through my copy heavy with yellow highlighter marks looking for something I hadn’t covered on this blog before. Here’s the quote that jumped out at me:

“You are almost always better off if your scene is located outside in an interesting location with things happening in the background and all around the talkers. Keeping the characters moving helps. Movies are about moving pictures.”
Producer/writer/professor William Froug
Screenwritng Tricks of the Trade

Since this summer I’ve been calling these posts part of Screenwriting Summer School, it would be an interesting test to write down your all time favorite movie scenes and see if the majority of them are inside or outside. I know some screenwriters have a color coding index card system to see if they have a nice contrast of interior and exterior scenes. (Can’t recall anyone else saying you’re, “almost always better off if your scene is located outside.”)

The first exterior scene that jumped to my mind is the playground scene from On the Waterfronwritten by Budd Schulberg and directed by Elia Kazan. A simple walk and talk scene with Eva Marie Saint and Marlon Brando. It’s an understated scene and a bit of an exposition dump, but the good girl/bad boy scene (and their relationship) is important for the transformation of Brando’s character.

It’s a scene that does move the story forward and ties into the climax at the end of the story. I also like this scene because it’s an indie filmmaker-friendly kind of scene. It would be possible to shoot this scene with two actors and a four person crew. (How? Read The 10 Film Commandments of Edward Burns.)

The playground scene opens with a dolly shot* that runs a full two minutes without a cut. But it’s an elegant scene that’s not only well written and acted but watch it a couple of times and see how the direction and cinematography of this outdoor shot work to make the shot visually interesting. There’s the smoke from trashcan fires floating by, the swing set, the dropped glove, the stick of gum, the Manhattan skyline across the river, and the wrought iron fence—all of which to help make the three and a half-minutes visually interesting.

Van Gogh once said that he’d be content with water and a Rembrandt painting. I feel that way about On the Waterfront—a 1954 film that won 8 Oscars including Best Picture, and which the AFI lists as the #8 best movie of all time.

P.S. For what it’s worth, the climax of On the Waterfront is set outside. But the scene most played from the movie “I coulda been a contender” is set inside a car, and Karl Malden’s well-known speech is an interior scene. If someone’s expanded Froug’s outside comment please send me the link.

I’ve been watching the first season of The Sopranos (another Jersey-centered mob story like On the Waterfront) and I know cable TV—especially in the 90s before The Sopranos changed the face of TV—doesn’t have the budgets of an average Hollywood movie, but there’s a lot of sitting around and talking on The Sopranos. (Same for the #2 rated all-time TV show Seinfeld.)

Perhaps that’s the nature of the beast and it’s not fair to compare a top Tv show with a top movie.  Last year the Writer’s Guild of America named The Sopranos as the top show in television history. Created by David Chase it stands on it own and paved the way for one of the writers on The Sopranos, Matthew Weiner, to create Mad Men. And while Mad Men has its share of interior shots, the set design and set decorating of show set a new standard in Tv of how visually interesting an interior shot can be. And I’m sure there are plenty of Breaking Bad fans who would rather watch the compelling opening scene of the series a few times over the scene I chose from a black and white film that’s 60 years old.

This isn’t really about is TV more like theater than film, or a debate if TV writing is the best dramatic work being done today. It’s just three sentences by the one-time TV producer/writer and former UCLA professor Mr. Froug that I hopes helps you contemplate about your scene settings.

Here’s the second exterior scene that came to mind:

*A small indie crew couldn’t lay the tracks needed to do that On the Waterfront dolly shot with the large camera they used, but they could quickly set up and use a shorter dolly move using something like a Dana Dolly or what I have the Porta Jib Explorer. (I’ve even set my up in as little as 10 minutes shooting solo.) Or you could ditch the tracks altogether and using something like the MOVI.

Update: I learned that the studios wanted to shoot On the Waterfront on the lot in Los Angeles, but Kazan said it was an ‘East coast movie” and fought and won to shoot it in Hoboken, New Jersey.

Related posts:
The Source of ‘On the Waterfront’
Telling Our Own Shadow Stories
Paying for Transformation (Tip #65)
Kazan on Directing (Part 1) 

Scott W. Smith 

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” A solid principle is to employ expository dialogue as the reaction to the events that take place before the lens (remember: show and then tell). Invent action or incidents as the provocation for dialogue, because exposition in film is much more interesting after the dramatic event as a comment (or perhaps an explanation) on it.”
Alexander Macindrick


“The senior writers at the film studios in London where I worked for many years used to delight in collecting examples of bad dialogue in screenplays. One of their favorites was ‘Look, Highland cattle!’ This was a quote from a particularly amateurish travelogue in which a character pointed off-screen, said this line, and the film cut to guess what? Those three words became shorthand for a piece of wholly unnecessary and redundant exposition used when the story was being told perfectly well solely through visual means. A good director will go out of his way, often in the editing process when he has both words and images in front of him, to gradually eliminate all lines that are absolutely not necessary.”
Alexander Mackindrick
On Film-making
Page 7

Here’s the opening scene (Spanish translation version) from the Breaking Bad pilot written by the show’s creator Vince Gilligan, and it’s a great example of visual and compleing storytelling with limited dialogue. You may not know what’s going on but it makes you want to know what happend and what will happen next. Much better than, “Look, Highland cattle!”—or even “Look, a meth lab!”

P.S. An interesting editing concept I picked up from Sam Mendes on the DVD commentary of American Beauty is looking at cutting the first line or two of the opening of the scene and doing the same at the end of the scene. American Beautywas Mendes’ first film and he discovered in editing that often times those lines weren’t needed. It’s an interesting exercise to read your script again from page one asking yourself— “If the opening and closing lines were edited out, would it make any difference?”

I’ve found that in reading many unpublished screenplays it’s not just cutting the opening or closing line or two in a scene that works, but often a line or two of dialogue within regular ongoing conversation in scene after scene.

Related post:

Is 110 the New 120?
The Four Functions of Dialogue (Tip #45)

Scott W. Smith

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